Reorganising Power for Systems Change

Two weeks ago I participated at The EDGE Funders Alliance Conference 2017, as a member of the local host committee in Barcelona. EDGE acts within philanthropy to raise awareness and deepen understanding of the interconnected nature of the social, economic and ecological crises threatening our common future. EDGE works to increase resources for communities and movements creating systemic change alternatives for a transition to a society that supports justice, equity and the well-being of the planet.

The Conference gathered more than 250 progressive funders & activist partners. We had the opportunity to discuss systems change in the different thematic Engagement Labs, Workshops, Walking tours, Community Meetings, Dine Arounds and Plenary Sessions with inspiring speakers and an awesome facilitator.

I am still digesting the Conference and the different type of learning experiences I had. However, I’d like to share with you three of them I found especially useful:

  1. Just transition framework: The Conference started by setting a common framework for systems change analysis. It has been developed by Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project. According to them, Just Transition requires us to build a visionary economy for life in a way that is very different than the economy we are in now. Constructing this visionary economy calls for strategies that democratize, decentralize and diversify economic activity while we damper down consumption, and (re)distribute resources and power.

 

2. Fishbowl conversation: One of the most common methodologies used at the Conference for engaging in collective discussions was the fishbowl. It is a conversation in the form of a dialogue that allows the participation of many people. It involves having a small group of people (usually 5) seated in a circle, having a conversation in full view of a larger group of listeners. There’s an empty chair in theinner circle that can be occupied by someone from the outer circle when they have something they wish to contribute to the conversation. When that is the case, a person from the inner circle has to leave the conversation so that there is always an empty chair open for new people to join. Fishbowl processes provide a creative way to include the “public” in a small group discussion. They can actually be used in a wide variety of settings, including workshops, conferences, organizational meetings and public assemblies. Fishbowls are useful for ventilating “hot topics” or sharing ideas or information from a variety of perspectives. Although largely self-organizing once the discussion gets underway, the fishbowl process usually has a facilitator or moderator. During the Conference this was a very interesting way to foster conversations.

 

3. Agroecology on the rise:  There were multiple occasions and spaces at the Conference which tried to facilitate Agroecological conversations and further collaboration between philanthropy and civil society organizations to co-create sustainable food systems rooted in social justice. In fact, many people at the Conference were involved in movements or funds that conceive of agroecology as an already-working alternative paradigm that relates not only to agrarian reform, but to climate justice, post-extractivist circular economy and social justice (including indigenous rights). I had the impression that not only is agroecology powerful, but it is expanding, increasingly in fashion, and one of the ways to move towards a Just Transition.

Mother Nature Needs Her Daughters

This year, I am extremely fortunate because I have been selected to join the Homeward Bound program. Homeward Bound is a groundbreaking leadership initative for women in science. It specifically seeks to raise the leadership capability of women scientists so as to enhance their ability to impact policy and influence the decision-making shaping our planet and the conditions for life on earth. Their slogan is “Mother Nature Needs Her Daughters”, as is beautifully illustrated in the short film above (which makes me cry everytime I watch it, but not in a bad way!) The initiative emphasises the role that women, and particularly women scientists, can play in moving us out of environmental crisis and into practices of ecological care and I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to be involved.

As a lucky participant, I will take part in Homeward Bound’s year long program to develop leadership, strategic and communication capabilities, which will then culminate in a 3 week voyage to Antarctica. Yes, Antarctica! Cue Happy Dance. During the voyage to Antarctica, the transformational learning towards being a better leader will continue and intensify, but all participants will also be given an amazing opportunity to learn about the lastest scientific research on climate change and particularly its impacts in the Antarctic. Indeed it was the coordinator of this ‘science’ part of the program that first alerted me to the initative and encouraged me to apply – thanks Justine Shaw!

Homeward bound has a 10 year plan to offer its program to 1000 women in science, from all around the world, so as to help promote them into positions of leadership to affect policy and advance sustainability. It started in 2016, when in its first year it took the world’s largest-ever female expedition to Antarctica (76 women). The next voyage, to take place in early 2018, will be even bigger as it will take the 80 participants selected this year and currently starting their training to the frozen land of the far south.

To apply for the program, I had to answer a set of questions concerning my background, experience, interests, challenges and thoughts on leadership. I also had to submit a 2 minute movie making a pitch for why they should select me (which took me quite a few takes to get right!). What was particularly interesting for me while writing the application was that they specifically said that it was okay to not know the answer to some questions – what they were looking for was honesty, passion, a willingness to collaborate and a desire to implement and pass on what is learned to others. Women were selected for the program from a huge range of different scientific and technical fields and from across all levels – including senior staff with lots of experience and others who have just completed a PhD. It has been fascinating to see and start to get know all the other women involved, which has begun now through our first conference calls.

I know I have only just started touching the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this initative will offer over the next 12 months but I am already extremely excited. The founder Fabian Dattner seems so wise and warm and energetic that I cannot help but get enthusiastic listening to her talk about her vision. All the women selected to be involved seem so diversely skilled and passionate about the planet that I am already feeling inspired to be better, do more and create new networks of collaboration. The approach to transformational learning and the activities that we are already being asked to do (such as reflective journaling) align so well with my own thoughts concerning what constitutes a powerful pedagogy that I  can’t wait to dive in and learn more about leadership and strategic communications through their approach. All of this means that even though I am slightly terrified of the extended time required on a boat in rough oceans at the end of it all, I am feeling extremely lucky to be a part of the Homeward Bound 2017/18 team. Hopefully I can continue to update this blog with learnings as I go and I encourage everyone to follow the program through their social media links.

The National Agricultural Research Forum -reflections on the future of agricultural research in South Africa

Last week i attended the National Agricultural Research Forum (NARF) annual meeting in Pretoria.  This is an annual governmental meeting open to all food stakeholders that aims to set research priorities for the year and ahead and work towards an integrated future of agri/cultural research in South Africa. Given the project’s interest in the changes that agricultural research and knowledge has undergone over the decades this meeting was an opportunity to understand better government’s interface with agricultural research and various stakeholders in the Research and Development (R&D) system in South Africa. It was also an opportunity to explore how agriculture and the agricultural research that supports it is being imagined for the future in South Africa and what kinds of knowledge are being prioritised. Over the last months in the field i have been interested in how ecological knowledge in agriculture is changing and exploring the theme of agri/cultural deskilling linked to the introduction of new seed technologies developed often out of context of where they are used and with little or no dialogue with farmers. I have been exploring this in the context of small scale maize agri/cultures as well as in the R&D system in South Africa. I have also been interested in the connections and disconnections  between science , research, innovation and small-scale farmers. The meeting allowed a space to explore how farming knowledge, especially that of small scale farmers was being prioritised or not on a national level.

The meeting started off with a keynote address by the Director General for the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries Mr.M Mlengana. He made reference to the Vision 2030 National Development Strategy as being the base document for the agricultural vision of South Africa in the context of the wider goals of the country as well as the Sustainable Development Goals which guide this. The 2017/18 National Agricultural Development Strategic Plan provides a roadmap to implementing this vision. The 2008 National Research and Development Strategy provides the baseline for setting the priorities in research to support this. At the meeting there was a launch of an APEX Body which will fulfill the role of coordinating agricultural research going forward as well as build capacity and partnerships in this area. Previously this was managed by the National Agricultural Research Forum NARF which was developed in 2002 to “facilitate consensus and integrate coordination in the fields of research, development, and technology transfer to agriculture in order to enhance national economic growth, social welfare and environmental sustainability”.  In his talk the DG stressed the importance of “building an inclusive rural economy”, focusing on “research and innovation” and agriculture contributing to rural growth. He stressed the importance of science for agriculture in a changing global climate and the need for research that will “unpack uncertainties” that we will be faced with. While smallholder farmers are widely acknowledged and mentioned throughout the The 2017/18 National Agricultural Development Strategic Plan they feature less in the The 2008 National Research and Development Strategy.

Globally there is an increasing recognition that small scale farmers are vital actors in the current production and future of food production. In South Africa there appears to strong drive in Policy and related developmental programmes to bring small-scale farmers into monocrop based agricultures while fewer opportunities for small-scale farmers to boost their farming systems in a way that focuses on diversity and alternative agri/cultural models which incorporate the knowledge and skills of farmers. This seemed to be reflected at the meeting which focused a lot on scientific research and technology development for agricultural growth and poverty reduction without much mention of other knowledge holders being key collaborators for future goals. There also appears to be a focus on science and technology as the primary answer to agricultural challenges in the future, while there not a wide exploration of how these technologies may deeply impact systems of agri/culture.

Historically farmers have been the primary keepers and innovators of agricultural knowledge. This knowledge was gained from experience and skills passed down over generations through families and apprenticeships and based on a knowledge imbedded in particular landscapes and ecologies. However from the early 1900s this began to change and scientists began to assume authority over agricultural knowledge. This went hand in hand with an increasing drive to turn agricultural produce into commodities and raw materials. And in the hands of scientists and researchers – through hybridization, seeds would also become valuable commodities.  Scientists who initially relied on farmer knowledge such as in choosing which varieties to focus on in the development of hybrid maize came to dominate the research and development of seed. Agricultural research on maize seed has expanded and shifted over time in relation to political and economic imperatives. During this process the knowledge of small scale farmers has been increasingly sidelined and undervalued and small scale farmers have become increasingly recipients of knowledge and technologies. In her 1993 paper ‘Deskilled: Hybrid Corn and Farmers’ Work’ Deborah Fitzgerald argues that “hybrid corn was an agent by which farmers were effectively deskilled” in the United States. The project here in South Africa has been tracing the introduction of new seed technologies and exploring how social-ecological knowledge in relation to maize agri/cultures may being lost or changed because of the introduction of seed technologies (Hybrid first and then Genetically Modified varieties).  Small-scale farmers are holders of agricultural diversity in the way of seed that has been passed down generationally, and attached to this seed is a wealth of knowledge around growing it in relation to ecological systems. However, this is not always recognised and in many cases is threatened by harmonisation of seed laws, introduction of new varieties such as GM seed and hierarchical knowledge systems and development schemes which promote small scale farmers abandoning traditional varieties and taking up new seed varieties to be grown as monocrops.

I will in the next weeks spend more time exploring the Policy environment and how R&D is envisioned in this in relation to small-scale farming and how this related to current focus of agricultural research. While i have begun to interview a number of government officials and researchers on how small-scale farming is connected to the wider R&D system i would like to interview more stakeholders on how they envision smallholder framer knowledge being incorporated into research and development for the future of food.

 

Responding to increasing water-scarcity and drought in South Africa

Livestock drink from a drying river outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, November 8, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Livestock drink from a drying river outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, November 8, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

2015 has been labelled as the hottest year ever recorded and this past month of February had the highest mean global temperature (breaking January’s record) to date. This temperature increase is affecting different areas of the world in different ways. In South Africa, drought conditions are escalating. While in November last year the drought was being labeled the worst drought in 30 years, 4 months later it is being referred to as “the worst drought in a century.” This time-scale stretches beyond the bounds of individual memory and experience, placing us in an unknown and uncertain terrain and highlighting the need to draw on a diversity of resources to move forward.

In recent months I have been following the coverage of the drought in South Africa and how this crisis is being responded to by maize farming – the staple crop in the country. There has been much debate about the approaches, funds and means made available by the government to support farmers and those suffering the worst effects of the drought. Currently, articles in newspapers warn of how the drought threatens to tip South Africa into economic recession. The price of rising agricultural imports, of which a large part includes maize, will feed into inflation and increase already rising food prices and high levels of poverty. More importantly, since the middle of 2015, South Africa (usually a net exporter of grains) has been forced to begin importing maize from neighboring countries that are also suffering from drought.

The drought, which is affecting 5 provinces, is hitting particularly hard in the province where my research is based and maize is grown extensively by small-scale farmers. In fact, small-scale farmers are likely to be the worst affected by changes in climate due to a lack of resources. Given this, drought has emerged as an important theme within the Agri/Cultures research project here in South Africa. It seems increasingly relevant to look at how water scarcity and drought is experienced and related to within different cultures or systems of agriculture and socio-ecological relationships. What kind of solutions and ideas concerning the crisis of drought are being put forward? How do these reflect (or not) dominant agricultural discourses?

Strategies for climate adaptation in South Africa have to date “mainly centered on crop improvement of a limited set of major crops” through crop breeding and genetic modification (the development and release of new drought resistant varieties in South Africa was discussed in some detail in a previous post). However, there is also a quieter but growing interest in the use of indigenous crops as a response strategy in the face of drying climatic conditions. This week the South African Water Research Commission (WRC) put out a press release about a short-term study they are conducting on drought-tolerant indigenous and traditional crops. Recognising that these increasingly underutilised crops (often termed Neglected and Underutilised Crop Species (NUCS)) urgently need to be investigated as part of the solution to providing a food ‘secure’ future.

The director of the WRC project explains that “The agricultural landscape of South Africa in many ways reflects the dominance of modern crops that originated from outside of Africa. Their rise has led to a decline in cultivation and knowledge about indigenous crops…The complexity of the problem posed by water scarcity, climate variability and change, population growth, and changing lifestyles requires unique solutions. Indigenous crops have the potential to fill this gap.”

The executive manager of the WRC envisions that this research will “propel these indigenous crops from the peripheries of subsistence agriculture to the promise of commercial agriculture, through scientific research”. It is interesting that here we see commercial agriculture looking to marginalized agri/cultural practices as sources of innovation. Within the Agri/Cultures Project I hope to explore how the crisis of water scarcity is being approached and experience within different systems of agri/culture and how it is forcing the agriculture industry to rethink relationships with nature and the importance of biological diversity and diversity of knowledge.

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This photograph was taken by Christopher Mabeza and is part of his article titled Metaphors for climate adaptation from Zimbabwe: Zephaniah Phiri Maseko and the marriage of water and soil” in the Book Contested Ecologies. Here Mbeza explores how the well known farmer Zephaniah Phiri Maseko’s relationship with water is an integral part of the agro-ecological systems he creates on his land in Zimbabwe. His work is an inspiring example of the importance of exploring different systems of agriculture. The book is freely available online: https://www.bookdepository.com/Contested-Ecologies/9780796924285

What does the Paris Agreement mean for the agri-food system?

 

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Action from Oxfam. Author: Ainhoa Goma/Oxfam

On 12th December 2015 the Paris Agreement was reached at the COP21 negotiations. I was in Paris at the time participating from the emerging global climate movement that took the streets during the weeks prior to the event, despite the state of emergency declared after the terrible terrorist attacks. Considered by many as an historical turning point in the global fight against climate change, while others describe it as an epic failure, this agreement brought together 196 parties (195 countries and the EU) to agree on a common long-term strategy on how to tackle climate change. Since the Agri/Cultures project is assessing different agri-food systems in terms of their contribution to sustainable development (as well as their social utility and ethical justifiability), we wondered, what does the Paris Agreement mean for the future of agri-food systems?

Agriculture is both profoundly impacted by and impacts climate change. The global agri-food system is responsible of an astounding 44-57% of global GHG emissions, including not only the farming component of the system but also the connected deforestation, food waste, transport, processing, packing, retailing and freezing involved.

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  1. Ambitious targets without a concrete plan

The overall problem of the Paris Agreement is that despite setting surprisingly ambitious targets to limit the temperature increase below +2ºC, or even +1.5ºC, there is no agreement on any actual plan to reach the target (which is important since the current national commitments do not collectively add up to the target emissions reductions.)

In December 2015, the world was +1ºC warmer and more humid than pre-industrial levels. In order to stay below a +1.5ºC increase, the world would have to stop burning fossil fuels by 2030, which would need measurable, strict and binding guidelines to achieve it. Regardless of such a significant change being required to meet the target though, the new agreement doesn’t actually take effect until 2020, so the window of possibility to achieve the +1.5ºC goal will arguably have passed if nations wait until the Agreement enters into force to act .

176 of the world’s 195 countries that went to Paris wrote down what their plans to tackle climate change were. However, even if all of these actions were taken, the world would still be heading for 3 degrees or more of global warming by the end of this century. This would put us in a dangerous and uncertain world, with floods, droughts, superstorms and permanent hostile weather conditions that will severely affect societies and ecosystems. Agriculture, thus, may be intensely impacted in the dystopian future we are heading to because even a difference of half a degree will make a world of a difference for the food we eat.

2. No new climate finance mechanisms

“Climate finance means paying developing countries to move beyond reliance on fossil fuels that made the U.S. and other developed countries rich. It also means paying for vulnerable communities and ecosystems to adapt to the climate change that’s already happening”, as Oscar Reyes, from the Institute of Policy Studies, puts it.

Not only have rich countries repeatedly failed to provide climate finance on anything close to the scale needed, but also, in the Paris Agreement there is no binding requirement for financial contributions from individual countries, only a new ‘collective’ financing goal of at least $100 billion per year set for developed countries. This is despite the estimated need, according to the Climate Fairshares tool, being upwards of $400 billion per year. This is especially relevant for farmers and subsistence communities from poorer and more vulnerable countries (often predominantly women), since in the years to come, their production will face increasing uncertainty due to instability in weather conditions and without support to adapt to the changing conditions, pursuing farming as a livelihood will become increasingly difficult and unappealing for younger generations.

3. There are no legally binding targets to reduce emissions

As Oscar Reyes states:While the now defunct Kyoto Protocol set binding targets for rich countries related to their responsibility for causing climate change (admittedly, with some considerable loopholes), the new deal takes an “anything goes” approach. Countries are free to promise whatever they want, and there’s no penalty if they break these promises”. The only obligation that is mentioned in the Paris Agreement is for nations to come together again in 2023 (and every 5 years) after this.

Through the lens of agri-food systems, this means that there are no clear pathways to or binding targets for change in this sector. This leaves the current trend of pursuing agricultural systems for increased production, trade and consumption of foods that are big emitters of GHG to continue. Tangibly, this means that models of  industrial farming oriented towards global export, with the accompanying long geographic and temporal production-consumption chains (i.e. requiring extensive processing, packaging, freezing and transport) will continue to be promoted as the ideal model for the future over local farms and food systems.

4. There is no reference or clear timeline for the phasing out of fossil fuels nor for GHG intensive agricultural systems.

Oil plays a major role in many dimensions of the agri-food system (e.g. in the practices of high input and highly mechanized industrial farms, as well as in transport, processing, packaging and freezing). To stay below the 2ºC target and have a chance of surviving in a disrupted future, it has been argued that we would have to leave 80% of fossil fuels in the ground. As such, it seems imperative to actively promote low-carbon agri-food systems. This would imply, among many other things, favouring small production-consumption trade dynamics, short supply chains, organic farming methods and cutting back on meat and dairy production, consumption and trade. Despite this, the only two mentions of food and farming in the Paris Agreement are not in the binding part of the text and are more vague references to care for food security and world hunger, with no real attention given to how food is produced or any mention of ‘small-holder farmers’, even if they produce around 70% of the food we consume. As Hilda Elver, UN Special Rapporteur of the Right to Food, puts it: “In most developing countries, agriculture is a major sector of the economy. It has become crucial to understand that the interests of the small-holder farmers and agribusinesses are not easily reconcilable.”

5. There are no guidelines on land use.

In short, despite high ambitions on the question of what level of temperature rise needs to be avoided, the Paris Agreement does not seem to provide enough details to support the kind of radical structural changes needed in societies to avoid dangerous climate change. For agri-food systems, which are a hugely important but very often overlooked or neglected contributor to climate change, this means effectively reinforcing the existing power dynamics of an industrial, globalised, concentrated and highly carbon intensive agricultural model.

In preparing this post, we struggled a little bit to find specific critical analyses of the interrelated themes of climate change and agri-food systems. Do you know of any good research or additional articles that further develop this topic? If so, leave us a comment and we will be very happy to look into them!